Rethinking seminary education

Bridging the field and academia.

16 SEPTEMBER 2019 · 11:00 CET


I have become increasingly aware of concerns about the nature and suitability of preparing future church leaders through ‘traditional’ theological training.i

In my work at Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS) I have met many church leaders from around the world, and it is clear that many of them are asking similar questions, especially in countries where they have been using a basically Western model of theological training.

My own professional background has been in education, including training secondary school teachers at Oxford University where we had similar concerns and radically reformed our training.

Because of these parallels and my experience in training mature, motivated men and women to become competent teachers and leaders both in the short and the long term, I dare to raise questions and make suggestions for the training of future church leaders, in ministry and mission.

I would like to structure this deliberately provocative paperii around a series of fundamental questions: why? where? who? what? how? and when?


The ‘why?’ question may be self-evident: why are we expecting all future church leaders to receive a course of training?

Is it to prepare them for the day-to-day work, in services and in service, with the church family and the local community? Is it to prepare them for the practical day-to-day problems of contemporary society? Is it to prepare them to become theologians?

Is it to help them develop as Bible-believing, Spirit-filled, mature Christians? Is it to make them learn a lot of facts or to prepare them for ongoing, self-motivated learning?

How we answer these questions will determine what we put into our courses. My answer would be to stress the preparation for the practicalities of helping the needs of real people in contemporary society.iii


Rethinking seminary education



The ‘where?’ question focuses on where the training should be given: in the theological seminary or in the ‘field’ experiencing the situations they are likely to meet after training.

Traditionally, much ministerial training has been done in ‘ivory towers’ where the studentsiv are taken out of the real world for quiet reflection and study. Increasingly the advantages of working in the field from the earliest stages are being recognized.

My preference would be for both, linking the reflective insights in academia with practical experience in the field. We thus ensure that the academic, theoretical, theological aspects of the training are always working in partnership with the practice and are subservient to it.

Also, where both locations are involved, let that be concurrently, not consecutively, so that the students can be continually reflecting on their practice.



The ‘who?’ question asks primarily who does the teaching, or mentoring, of the students. Traditionally much, or indeed most, of the teaching has been done by theologically trained academics, often with little experience of the ministries for which the students are preparing.

The practitioners in the churches and in the mission fields make excellent teachers and mentors for the students, who can relate much more fully to them through their common experiences and commitment.

I believe that such practitioners have a central, even a leading, role in preparing future church leaders. Again, there needs to be partnership between the academic and the practitioner in planning as well as in teaching the course to agreed, common aims.



This brings us to the ‘what?’ question: what should be included in the curriculum of the course? That question should not be addressed until the earlier questions about the purpose of the course and the partnerships involved have been resolved.

In the Education field we clarified our thinking by distinguishing the Knowledge, the Skills, and the Attitudes required of a teacher; and this classification is useful for ministerial training too:


The knowledge required would necessitate some Bible-based theology but not as much, I suspect, as is included in many courses. Without sound theology gross error (such as the prosperity gospel) can spread throughout the church.

However, hard questions need to be asked about much of the existing curriculum in theological colleges.

Is it really necessary to know quite as much theology, church history, or Old Testament Hebrew etc. to be a good church minister or missionary?

Would it be more appropriate to know more of the issues in contemporary society—gender issues, justice, exploitation etc.? Would it be helpful to have some basic sociology and psychological theory to help understand the human relationships involved in churches?


The skills involved in ministry also need to be spelt out: skills of preaching, skills of working with young people and old people, skills of managing church business, skills of helping needy and suffering folk and managing difficult relationships, skills of encouragement and inspiration etc.


It is also necessary, in ministry and mission above all, to ensure that prospective ministers have the appropriate attitudes to God, to themselves, and to others.

These all-important aspects of Christian leadership cannot be taught easily but will be developed through the hidden curriculum of the institution and personal mentoring through the staff.

Linked to what is taught is the issue of how it (and the students) are to be assessed at the end of the course. If the only assessment is by end-of-course written examination, then the knowledge aspects of the curriculum will inevitably predominate.

Both parts of the partnership between academics and practitioners need to be in agreement on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required, and in turn who will assess what, and how.



The ‘How?’ question relates to how the students actually learn, and thus how the teaching is best done.

Most students training for the ministry are mature, self-motivated, and committed Christians who have already learnt much through experience and are capable of learning further through evaluating their own practice, with a sympathetic mentor. The model of the reflective practitioner is appropriate for much deep learning.

Few students—I suspect few of us—learn a lot from having an ‘expert’ lecture for an hour and us faithfully making, learning, and regurgitating the notes.

However, this practice of ‘teaching’ is not unknown in many theological colleges. Let us build on the principle of ‘learning by doing, with reflection.’


Rethinking seminary education


In asking the ‘When?’ question, I just want to stress that the minister has not learnt all that is needed when the formal initial training is completed.

The learning process will, or certainly should, be an ongoing process through the whole period of ministry or mission. Largely this will be self-driven, but the role of a mentor throughout the working life is invaluable.

If such mentors have been involved with the initial training too, the development will be all the more useful and can be a two-way process. Students, and practitioners, often learn more from each other than from their ‘teachers’; and follow-up sessions structured after the training can continue this process.



What then are the guiding principles that I would recommend from my experience in training teachers?

- The training should be a genuine partnership between the academics in the training institutions and the practitioners, the ministers in the churches or the missionaries in the field. The planning, the teaching, the mentoring, and the evaluation should be shared.

- The training should be practice-based, done largely in the churches or on the mission field with, wherever possible, the seminary-based work and the field-based work running concurrently rather than consecutively. In this way the practice can be continually underpinned by the theory and reflection.

- The theory and the theology should be integrated with the practice: the criteria for selecting the theoretical aspects of the course should be whether they genuinely relate to and benefit the practice of ministry.

- Clear analysis should be made, and made explicit, as to what knowledge, what skills, and what attitudes are required for the successful completion of the course; and the assessment process at the end of the course should reflect these knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

- The initial training should be linked to the in-service aspects of training, with follow-up support by mentors building on the same principles.

- The journey of church leaders, ministers and missionaries is an ongoing spiritual and personal one with the individual’s Christian faith and relationship to God at the heart. Opportunities in training and in practice should be given to nurture and strengthen this, both through explicit activities and through example and the ‘hidden curriculum’ of the training institutions.

I am conscious as I write this that many, much more experienced and expert than me, are already experimenting with developing the best way to train leaders for the church.

I am conscious too that the job of ministry in real churches in contemporary society is exceedingly difficult—I used to think that the job of a school teacher was the most difficult, until I considered the job of leaders in the church.

I hope that these provocative suggestions from another, but parallel, context might stimulate constructive discussion.

Brian E. Woolnough is a Research Tutor at Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, and an Emeritus Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford.

He spent most of his professional life in education, first as a secondary school science teacher and then as an academic and tutor at the University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies where he taught postgraduate and doctoral students, examined, researched, wrote, and spoke at many international conferences around the world.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. Learn more about this flagship publication from the Lausanne Movement at




i Editor’s Note: See article by Ashish Chrispal entitled, ‘Theological Education: Which Way’ in this issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis.

ii I have written a fuller paper on this. See Transformation, 2016, Vol 33(4) 249-261. Woolnough, B E (2016), Purpose, Partnership, and Integration: Insights from Teacher Education for Ministerial/Mission Training.

iii Editor’s Note: See article by Ramesh Richard entitled, ‘Training of Pastors’, in September 2015 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis

iv I am conscious that the word ‘student’ is unsatisfactory in describing the typical mature, experienced Christian undergoing such training, I hope readers will forgive me using this term for simplicity throughout the paper.

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Lausanne Movement - Rethinking seminary education